The Cultural Limits of Legal Tolerance

36 Pages Posted: 2 Sep 2008

See all articles by Benjamin L. Berger

Benjamin L. Berger

York University - Osgoode Hall Law School

Date Written: September 1, 2008


This article presents the argument that our understanding of the nature of the relationship between modern constitutionalism and religious difference has suffered with the success of the story of legal tolerance and multiculturalism. Taking up the Canadian case, in which the conventional narrative of legal multiculturalism has such purchase, this piece asks how the interaction of law and religion - and, in particular, the practices of legal tolerance - would look if we sought in earnest to understand law as a component, rather than a curator, of cultural diversity in modern liberal societies. Understanding the law as itself a cultural form forces us to think about the interaction of law and religion as an instance of cross-cultural encounter. Drawing from theoretical accounts of cross-cultural encounter and philosophical literature about the nature of toleration, and paying close attention to the shape of Canadian constitutional doctrine on religious freedom (law's rules of cross-cultural engagement), this paper suggests that legal toleration is far less accommodative and far more assimilative than the conventional narrative lets on. Influential alternative theoretical accounts ultimately reproduce this dynamic because they similarly obscure the role of culture on both sides of the encounter of law and religion. Indeed, owing to the particular features of the culture of law's rule, even the more thickly cultural "solutions" proposed in dialogic theory ultimately fail. In the end, this article exposes the very real cultural limits of legal tolerance.

Keywords: Religion, Pluralism, Multiculturalism, Tolerance, Canada

JEL Classification: K10

Suggested Citation

Berger, Benjamin L., The Cultural Limits of Legal Tolerance (September 1, 2008). Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence, Vol. 21, No. 2, 2008, Available at SSRN:

Benjamin L. Berger (Contact Author)

York University - Osgoode Hall Law School ( email )

4700 Keele Street
Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3

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